More than any other American sport, baseball creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood. ~Thomas Boswell, in Inside Sports
Jealous of his success, I emailed Jay Jaffe yesterday to ask about his "process" -- i.e., "How did you get an article run in Salon, you lucky son of a bitch?" He responded with some helpful advice / encouragement (which I definitely don't take for granted, especially considering he's a Yankees fan and therefore, theoretically, has little to no reason to be civil to me), but also touched on the inalienable truth about him vs. me -- he's SABR, and I'm not.
"I'm not sure how applicable my experience is to yours," he said. "Your writing is much more...'humanistic' to use your own words. That's not meant as a slam at all ...but...you've got different options when it comes to placing your work than I do."
That got me thinking about the distinction--the nearly religious tribalism, at times--between those who are SABR and those who are not. Such as, for example, the fact that Jay felt the need to follow up the "humanistic" description with a disclaimer that it's "not meant as a slam." At times, I have seen discussion between those who are SABR and those who are not degenerate into outright flaming; and yes, I use that construction--"those who are SABR," on purpose. At this point, it appears to be an issue of personal identity. In some ways, it's remeniscent of Evolution vs. Creationism--except for the fact that with baseball, science vs. belief is less clear.
By that I mean, evolution is science, creationism is belief; evolution can be illustrated with empirical fact, creationism cannot. In terms of baseball, though, at times both SABR and non-SABR views can either be illustrated empirically or both cannot. There is far more murk, grey area, and insoluble argument.
Take, for example, the subject of Kevin Millar.
SABR numbers can show his decline--indeed, probably reveal it to be more or less precipitous than it appears to the naked eye. SABR numbers can demonstrate, empirically, that his foul-ball-to-base-hit or foul-ball-to-home-run ratio have changed since last season. With the naked eye, you can also observe that Kevin Millar has become, this season, a Master of the Foul Home Run. Anecdotally, you can say from your couch, "Goddamn. If he hits one more Monster shot that hooks just a centimeter foul, I am going to burn that Kevin Millar in effigy."
It's when you get into the whys that empirically defining a concept like Kevin Millar becomes trickier. I'm sure a SABR person could crunch numbers, look at his matchups, deduce there's a hole in his swing or a difference in his statistics in this or that situation that account for the discrepancy. But does that really answer why? SABR here produces solid, reproduceable conclusions, but they are incomplete.
The non-SABR person can say, Kevin Millar is filling out his uniform much more than in previous seasons (this is actually what my father said). He's fat and weak this season. But David Wells is far fatter than Millar, and far older, and not as desperately compromised by it; fatness alone is not necessarily an inhibitor to athletic ability. The non-SABR person can say, Kevin Millar was on the juice, obviously--how else to explain this sudden, sharp decline? But do any of these conclusively answer why? Of course not. Especially since most of us are not privy to Millar's weight or drug test results. Many things about the anecdotal approach here are unknowable.
This why is a case in which neither SABR or anecdotal approaches to a situation can be empirically proven correct.
As was Millar's return to solid play, including home-run hitting and some actual decency in the field, last night in Kansas City. A SABR person might point out Millar's numbers against the pitcher he was facing, might point out Kansas City's weakness as a team in general; in fact, I don't even know what a SABR person might point out, such is my ignorance of the divination process there, but I'm sure they would have something to point out, wouldn't they?
An anecdotal person such as myself, however, drawing from personal experience, would say, that bench--and his acceptance of it this time around--has made the difference. He got the chance to take his mind off things, certainly, got a chance to take a rest, step back, get some perspective.
Even better, his worst fear finally came true. He lost his everyday playing spot--he has no more worrying about that to do this season. It's done. It's reality. Now he can probably relax for the first time in months--because he's on the bench. It's over. Finito.
It's a curious psychological condition, that at times apathy increases skill. But that was how I interpreted it, looking at Millar's game last night. Of course, this is a very, very unscientific way to view things.
And, of course, there's no chart or forumula to describe what transpired between Millar and his teammates when he returned from his round-tripper to the dugout--their teasing nonchalance when he first entered, and the way it was finally broken by Jason Varitek, who leapfrogged onto Millar's back in a way that spelled out his affection and relief. There's no graph that'll show what had passed between them this season, human being to human being, and how that may or may not have affected Millar's performance.
At least in the case of Millar, both views, SABR and anecdote, are acceptable, because neither can be demonstrated as whole or unequivocal truth. And, perhaps more importantly, because neither of them is mutually exclusive to the other. Unlike evolutionary theory vs. creationism, the differences between the SABR view and the anecdotal view are not always mutually exclusive. It does not have to be that Millar either relaxed or happened to face the right pitcher in the right ballpark with the wind blowing the right direction. In fact, the truth of the matter is that probably, it was both. This is why Jay Jaffe and I both have blogs--this is why it's silly for SABR or anecdotal camps to condemn each other. Both are supplementary and complimentary to one another. Baseball is a mathematical and a beautiful game. There are ands here, not ors.
Just another way in which baseball is far better than real life.
Even when the Red Sox lose to the Royals.